Systems+Engines

Fuel Cell Dreams

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Pete Econ of Columbia, Maryland, asks:

"How long before we see fuel cells replacing generators on sailboats? They make a lot of sense in that they are smaller, lighter and quieter than generators. I see one yacht manufacturer is already installing SFC methanol fuel cells, and I know the military is using fuel cells to replace and supplement batteries."

Nigel Calder replies:

I’ve been dismissing fuel cells for over 10 years, but they are, indeed, getting close to being viable. Over 20,000 EFOY methanol-based fuel cells have been sold in Europe, primarily into the RV market. However, as far as I’m concerned they still don’t pencil out. If you calculate the cost of the power produced, it is still way too high, in spite of the obvious benefits (primarily silent power and lower emissions).

Having said that, breakthroughs in fuel-cell technology may make them viable in the marine market in the relatively near future. I have an article on this sitting on the back burner awaiting developments, so watch this space!

Fuel Cell Math

Nigel, in reply to your fuel cell math article December 2011, I can remember back in high school, when I just had to have that $200 Texas Instruments calculator.  It was probably almost 100 times more expensive than a slide rule but that wasn’t really the point.  It was all about capabilities of the new technology.  In the fuel cell world I agree that marine energy early adopters will be few today, but in other markets such as fuel cell fork trucks there is a business case for fuel cells.  Its 85 cents on the dollar compared to a battery electric fork trucks.  This doesn’t even take into account the substantial savings of time and cost for battery changing rooms.  For an indoor warehouse, zero emission is required when handling cosmetics or food products but zero emission is not necessarily a requirement for sailors, only a benefit.  In the automotive industry they are in the process of shifting from fuel cell demonstration to first run production to meet the zero emission mandates in California.  We will all benefit from the cleaner air, and these growing markets will ultimately drive higher volumes and subsequent lower costs in the coming years, we’ve all seen it before.  Getting back to the marine industry, early adopters will be the offshore racer who needs reliable power at low weight, or the cruiser who wants to have low noise zero emission power in a crowded anchorage with possible generator restrictions.  Cost is big factor but there are other considerations as well, and I think we all understand, that with any new technology there will always be some who just can’t give up their slide rule.

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